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PERU: Rights Groups Warn of Authoritarian Tendencies

Ángel Páez

LIMA, Jun 25 2008 (IPS) - The government of Peruvian President Alan García has demonstrated an authoritarian bent in its intolerance of social protest or any form of criticism, and has sponsored draft laws that treat demonstrations as criminal activity, say human rights groups and academics.

García, of the American Popular Revolutionary Alliance (APRA), has consistently favoured mining and oil companies despite growing protests from local communities and environmentalists, says a new report by the National Human Rights Coordinator (CNDH), which groups 67 local non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

The government’s response to the popular discontent over its economic policies has been to clamp down on protests and reject dialogue, a strategy that has merely generated greater social conflict, says the report.

Local authorities and residents in the southern town of Moquegua recently brought activity to a halt for 10 days with roadblocks in that normally peaceful part of the country because the government did not address their demand for equal distribution of the usage fees paid by mining companies.

In Moquegua, where 25 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, one of the lowest levels in Peru, the government initially ordered the police to crack down on the strikers, who numbered around 20,000, but was forced in the end to negotiate an agreement.

The Defensoría del Pueblo (ombudsman’s office) reported that only 33 percent of the social conflicts that broke out in the country in 2007 were resolved through dialogue, and that 85 percent of the protests took place in areas where a majority of the population lives in poverty. (Ten of Peru’s 24 regions, mainly in the country’s Andean highlands, have poverty rates ranging from 54 to 85 percent).

The Defensoría said that 48 percent of the conflicts that occurred last year were over environmental issues and 27 percent were protests against local authorities.

García "has responded with laws that criminalise social protest," said CNDH executive secretary Ronald Gamarra.

The government has also "issued worrisome decrees that make the security forces the only mechanism to curb protest movements, while encouraging the passage of laws that treat popular demands and grievances as manifestations of organised crime. This is the reign of intolerance," said the activist.

The CNDH report refers to incidents that occurred in 2007, but activists say the authoritarian tendency has gotten worse this year.

"We know it is necessary to tackle delinquency and organised crime, but social protest is a completely different thing," said Gamarra. "It would seem that the neoliberal economic model can’t guarantee its own survival without repression."

On Feb. 19, during a farm strike organised by the Junta de Usuarios del Distrito de Riego de Ayacucho (JUDRA – Ayacucho's Union of Irrigation Users), the police used firearms to break up a demonstration, and two peasant farmers were killed.

Interior Minister Luis Alva Castro told Congress that the killers were "infiltrators" and that the police did not use their weapons.

However, the Ayacucho district attorney accused a police officer, Carlos Rodríguez, of killing the two farmers, Emiliano García and Rubén Pariona, and the officer admitted that he fired his gun.

Nevertheless, the García administration has stood by its version of events: that the two men were killed by "infiltrators."

APRA Congresswoman Mercedes Cabanillas blamed the protest in Ayacucho, one of Peru’s poorest regions, on the "outdated left."

Another influential APRA lawmaker, Aurelio Pastor Valdivieso, told IPS that the government has respected people’s rights, and denied that there is any tendency towards authoritarianism.

"In Peru, absolutely all freedoms are not only respected but guaranteed. There is also a commitment on the part of the government and the governing party to respect and totally defend the exercise of basic rights," he said.

"The problem is that there are people who mistake the government’s respect and tolerance for a kind of weakness and try to take advantage of that to incite protests, violence and even killings, like what happened in the recent farm strike in Ayacucho," he argued.

Pastor Valdivieso said the state "has the absolute right to take steps to defend its citizens, for which it has police forces, laws and regulations. It is determined not to allow disorder, chaos and the sensation of misgovernment to prevail in Peru."

Prime Minister Jorge del Castillo has also said the protests and demonstrations are the work of "pro-terrorists" and "NGOs financed from abroad that are opposed to the country’s development."

The government insists on encouraging the passage of tougher laws. "The new legislation, contrary to what is stipulated in the constitution, makes it possible for many of the abuses that the police may commit in clamping down on social protests to go unpunished," says the CNDH report.

At the same time, the government has promoted laws "that favour the extractive industries, like the issuing of (private) land titles in (indigenous) peasant communities and the government’s determined support of mining and oil companies in areas where the activity could hurt the health of the local population," the report adds.

The CNDH says the new laws demonstrate the "intransigence" of the government’s policies, even when the social costs are high and the economic benefits are questionable. It also says the government has benefited the economic power groups "at the expense of local populations."

Carlos Reyna, a sociologist at the Pontificia Catholic University who identifies with APRA, agreed that there have been a number of signs of a tendency towards authoritarianism on the part of the government.

"Besides a string of measures and decrees restricting the political freedom and free speech of citizens, President García has an extremely aggressive, confrontational and polarising style when it comes to dealing with social protests and anti-government demonstrations," Reyna told IPS.

"To that you have to add cases where the police have opened fire against demonstrators, causing deaths, and only subordinates were punished while no officials have been accused or identified by the executive branch or the ruling party majority in the legislature, which on the contrary has constantly ‘shielded’ the interior minister.

"The legislature has even given the police permission to open fire on social protests. So, yes, there are definitely authoritarian tendencies," said Reyna.

The chief of police in Moquegua, General Alberto Jordán, refused to lift a roadblock and was sacked after García called him a "coward" for not following his orders. Jordán said that if he had carried out the order, many people would have died.

In a Jun. 18 report, the Defensoría del Pueblo mentioned 65 current and potential social conflicts, 10 of which it said were about to break out, and seven of which involved local villages opposed to the activities of mining companies.

"There is a tense social climate. By generating the sensation that the state is not willing to compromise, the possibility of negotiated solutions is thrown into question," warns the CNDH.

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